14-year-old Julia Bluhm made national news when she showed up at Seventeen magazine with over 25,000 signatures on her petition asking for the mag to stop digitally altering their pictures. Teens Emma Stydahar and Carina Cruz followed suit with their Spark Movement aimed at getting Teen Vogue to lay off the Photoshop as well. While their efforts were somewhat successful – the editors of Seventeen agreed not to alter the faces or bodies of girls featured in the mag – they stopped short of agreeing to stop Photoshopping models and celebs nor did they say they would publish any unretouched photo spreads. Teen Vogue listened to the girls but sent them away with a lecture “that Teen Vogue is a great magazine, being unfairly accused.”
And while I’m 100% on board with the teens’ stated mission – “It’s time for an end to the digitally enhanced, unrealistic “beauty” we see in the pages of magazines. We are demanding that teen magazines stop altering natural bodies and faces so that real girls can be the new standard of beauty.” – I will admit to some ambivalence about the use of Photoshop in general.
Matter of fact, every picture I post on this blog has been digitally monkeyed with. I try to keep it minimal – the goal being that I just want the picture to look as beautiful as the real life thing, not better – but every photo at least gets cropped, watermarked with my copyright and the lighting corrected. Sometimes I go a bit further. While I don’t ever change my own or the Gym Buddies’ faces or bodies, I do always edit out crotch sweat. Because even if you can’t see crotch sweat on cotton pants in daylight, the camera flash has an interesting way of bringing it out. I have also removed showy nips, excessively large zits, weird reflections on faces, butt cracks and extraneous strangers in the background. It’s just something a girl does for her girlfriends, you know? Back in the old days it was your girlfriends’ job to make sure your skirt wasn’t tucked into your slip but since nobody wears slips nowadays (except me, I have a collection!) now it’s our job to make sure nobody has a tampon string hanging out of their bikini bottoms before the photo gets posted on Facebook.
The thing is, this type of Photoshopping is so common now that it is almost mundane. I think most people these days are okay with some incidental editing like the kind I used on our family pic or on my blog pics. It’s expected even. But lighting and cropping are one thing – it gets murkier the farther in you go, especially when it comes to the human form. I had one sister whiten her teeth on her family Christmas card and the first thing I did when I opened it was call her and scream “What tooth whitening system are you using? I MUST HAVE IT!!” Her teeth didn’t look fake but they were so perfectly luminous that it was the very first thing that drew my eyes in the picture. If it had been an ad for toothpaste it would have been brilliant. Unfortunately it wasn’t an ad.
Photoshopping humans can run the gamut from subtly removing a shadow or sheen obscuring a face to all the way into uncanny valley where the person looks humanoid instead of human. So where do you draw the line? It’s easy to say that models shouldn’t have their waists digitally whittled but what about smoothing out the wrinkles on their t-shirt? Does it just show the shirt to its fullest saleable potential or does it make it seem like she’s lacking the natural skin folds that happen when a person bends at the waist? What about adding filters to add effects like a retro vibe or a grittier look to the finished product – art or artifice? How about those photo services that allow you to swap heads from one pic to another so as to get the perfect pose – all the pieces are the same but the puzzle is different? Is a zit different than a large wrinkle? Is there such a thing as ironic Photoshopping? And then there are all the controversial photo edits like when they reverse-shopped Cameron Diaz to remove those v-lines and vascularity that come from an “overly muscular” body.
I think we can all agree that in many cases Photoshopping has gone too far. Some of the ways it’s been used in marketing have passed egregious and are downright evil. But I also think that Photoshop is part of how things work these days. Asking professional magazines to ban it entirely seems a tad unrealistic. And even if, say, Teen Vogue agreed to never photoshop another picture in their mag again, would we really like that? A large part of the whimsy in fashion spreads comes from artful digital enhancement not to mention how convenient it is to be able to fix mistakes like lighting problems that would take much longer and be more expensive to fix with retakes than with a computer.
I’m certainly not saying that Ralph Lauren should get away with turning an adult woman into a stickbug or that we shouldn’t educate people on how those slick advertisements are made. But I don’t think it’s the technology that’s the problem. It’s society’s deeply unrealistic standard of female beauty. Insanely long, thick eyelashes would continue to be sold as the ideal whether they are the product of glued-on falsies and makeup or of a computer whiz. A tiny waist would continue to be fetishized whether it’s through elaborate corsetry or through digital slimming. And is one illusion better than the other? While I commend the teens for their activism, I think they’re diluting their message by focusing so much on the digital. In the end I think we won’t believe that we’re beautiful until we can accept that everyone is beautiful. Because there isn’t just one way to be beautiful.
Don’t nix the Photoshop**. Fix the minds of the people who are using the Photoshop.
How do you feel about photoshop bans? Would you just prefer them to be labelled as digitally enhanced or would the label become meaningless? Do you digitally enhance your pics at all?
*I use “photoshopping” loosely. The actual program I use is Paint.net – it’s free and has almost as much functionality as the real Photoshop.